KENT, Wash. - The number of missing indigenous people is now in the hundreds in Washington state, nearly half of them are women.
Carolyn DeFord, is a local Puyallup tribe member fighting what she says is a growing epidemic.
The last time she saw her mother, Leona Kinsey, was 22 years ago, October 25, 1999.
"She went to the store to meet John and never showed up," DeFord told a group of residents listening to her speech hosted by the city of Kent.
Her mother never returned and is still missing.
Kinsey is part of the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women, or MMIW, across the country.
"Is it genocide?" DeFord said.
A crisis growing in Washington with 29 tribes in the Evergreen State alone.
Data says 77% of indigenous women reported missing or killed usually happens off tribal lands.
A fact troubling DeFord.
"Was I afraid walking from the parking garage to here? I'm always afraid to be in a parking garage," DeFord said. "When you advocate for families, and you hear the things that have happened you understand the reality and the high frequency that these things are happening."
Nationwide 5,712 cases of MMIWG were reported in 2016 but only 116 of them were logged in the DOJ database, according to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute.
"I have hope for change," DeFord said. "I have hoped that the person who did this is held accountable and that the system and the processes for searching and investigating missing persons cases, changes and is prioritized."
Washington state is the second state with MMIW cases and Seattle is at the top of the list of cities dealing with this epidemic with 45 cases according to the study.
Carolyn says the majority of MMIWP cases are also reported in Yakima, Spokane and currently 14 cases are open in Pierce County.
"This is something that's happening when we leave home, when we come into the cities for school or for work, or for services, that's where it's happening," DeFord said. "It's a societal issue that we all have a role to play in the solution."
So what’s being done?
Aside from DeFord sharing her life experiences, the loss of her cousin and mother, to educate our community -- Washington State is paving the way.
Legislation in early 2022 passed the M.I.P.A -- the Missing Indigenous Person Alert System – which DeFord says has already been used more than a dozen times, helping make a difference.
"We've already been able to recover people, bring folks home, get the word out in a timely manner where we have never been able to do that before so it's definitely a step in the right direction," DeFord said.
While she says there’s always room for improvement, DeFord says as a community we can all step in.
You can support search efforts, look for resources, help spread the word about a missing person, but more importantly DeFord says you can educate yourself as murder is the third leading cause of death in American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls between 10 and 24-years-old.
"Take some time to learn about domestic violence and human trafficking, how to identify them and what to do if we see them as bystanders," DeFord said. "What are the resources and what can we do because if we can, if we can do that and we can solve a good chunk of it."
She’s been living without her mother for nearly of a quarter of century.
DeFord is a mother and grandmother and says she’s here for a purpose, she’s going to keep fighting to spread awareness.
"As a nation, as a state, as community members we need to find them and bring them home safe," DeFord said.
The Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women People Taskforce will be hosting its annual summit with the Puyallup Tribe starting Dec. 13.
Location: Fife Emerald Queen Casino
- 5700 Pacific Highway E, Fife, WA 98424
- Phone #: (253) 922-2000
- Booking ID #: 12683
- Room rate: $119 plus tax per night
- Please use the booking ID # when calling to make the reservation process easier.
- Room availability guaranteed through November 22
To register visit, click here.